It opens with a long shot panning across from Algiers' European quarter with its spacious Parisian style boulevards, to the more cramped 'casbah' occupied by the Algerian population. It is 1957. One of its residents has been tortured by French soldiers into revealing the location of Ali la Pointe (Brahim Haggiag), a prominent figure in the resistance to French colonial rule in Algeria. An extended flashback begins, which forms the bulk of the film's narrative. It returns us to 1954. As the National Liberation Front (FLN) attempt to stir up a revolt against the French, Ali is attempting to make money out of them, by running an illegal betting stall. Another group of French residents show their appreciation for his services, by tripping him up as he runs from the police. While serving time for this petty offence, he witnesses an Algerian nationalist being put to death by guillotine, an experience that leaves him determined to join the resistance.
Ali becomes involved in the FLN, just as its campaign against the French is intensifying, with nationalists taking pot-shots at policemen on the streets in broad daylight. After an FLN suspect's house is blown up with his family inside, the struggle escalates. French troops are brought in, led by Colonel Mathieu (Jean Martin, the only professional actor in the cast), who makes clear from the outset both his studied respect for his opponents and his ruthlessness in crushing the rebellion. His goal is temporarily achieved by bloody repression, graphically displayed in harrowing torture scenes that are all the more sickening for being understated.
Although it is clear that Pontecorvo's sympathies lay with the downtrodden Algerians rather than the pampered French ex-pats, he avoids potential pitfalls of political drama. The Battle Of Algiers is neither worthy nor dull, its often frenetic pace and brooding tension has frequently invited comparisons with the ground-breaking editing techniques of Sergei Eisenstein. One scene could be seen as a reverse echo of the famous Odessa steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin: instead of Tsarist soldiers marching robotically down the steps to mow down civilians in cold blood, we see unarmed Algerians descending the narrow staircases of the casbah to invade the European Quarter and denounce the French for the bomb attack.
They are prevented not by policemen or soldiers, but by the soft cops of the FLN, who snatch the initiative from the angry crowd with a promise to avenge the massacred family in their own (clandestine) way. It came as a surprise to me to learn that the FLN leader in this scene, Kader, was played by real-life ex-FLN commander Yacef Saadi (also the film's co-producer), because in my view, this film doesn't do much to enhance the organisation's credibility. At best, it shows them going down in a glorious but bloody and futile defeat in 1957, with a mass spontaneous uprising emerging like phoenix from the ashes a few year later, apparently without their intervention.
Saadi is one of the almost entirely local, non-professional actors who were recruited to appear in The Battle Of Algiers, which was also filmed in the actual locations where the events of 1954-7 took place. Despite its documentary style, no newsreel footage was used, making its verisimilitude all the more remarkable. With its harshly lit monochrome photography, it has a laconic terseness that makes more recent docudramas like Bread And Roses (whose director Ken Loach would undoubtedly place his films in the same tradition) seem cheesy and schmaltzy by comparison. Contributing to this impression is the constant flashing of dates making the narrative into an unfolding diary of events and touches like the roll call of Ali la Pointe's previous convictions.
This is not to say that the film surveys the Algerian uprising with a coldly dispassionate eye. Ennio Morricone's powerful score enhances a tragic and emotionally stirring piece of cinema, with pounding war drums during the initial skirmishes of the rebellion and hauntingly lilting cadences towards the end, as the insurgents are isolated and picked off. Sound plays a major role in the exhilarating closing scenes of the mass breakout of Algerians from the casbah into the European Quarter, with the eerily exultant whoops and shrieks of the rioters.
But despite Pontecorvo's obvious passionate conviction, the film is unflinching in its depiction of atrocities, whether the illegal 'terrorism' of the FLN, or the state-sanctioned, big budget variety used to 'smoke them out of their holes' (as George Bush would have it). It is a film that manages to be both impartial and partisan without any piety. While The Battle Of Algiers voices the anger of the powerless, dispossessed and humiliated, it inspires a different emotion in the powerful: fear. This is why it was banned in France, and also paradoxically why US military tacticians are so interested in seeing it. But it's neither a 'terrorist primer', nor a blueprint for crushing the resistance to the US occupation of Iraq. Rather it points towards the seemingly impossible triumph of the human face over the jackboot forever stamping on it.
DVD extras: interview with director Gillo Pontecorvo, production stills gallery.